Saturday, 29 March 2008

Hong Kong Elvis

A blast of exhaust-scented steam enveloped us as we stepped through the terminal’s sliding glass doors. It was almost midnight, but the heat was a living force with a throbbing pulse of its own. The air terminal had been air- conditioned, so the heat and humidity outside came as a shock. I shifted my heavy pack on my back; I had only just put it on and already I could feel the sweat beginning to collect around my waist and under the shoulder straps.

From the plane, Hong Kong at night looked like a string of brightly-colored jewels scattered on a background of rich black and blue velvet. Up close it was all blazing neon and sky-rises, and I was mightily impressed.

“My God, it is hot,” breathed my new friend Lorraine, wiping her forehead with the back of her hand. “It’s got to be hotter here than it was in Minneapolis,” agreed her cousin Maureen.

I’d met Lorraine and Maureen on the plane. Fresh-faced Minnesota farm girls, they were on their way to India and Pakistan via Hong Kong, and I was on my way to Tokyo. Like me, Lorraine and Maureen had not made hotel reservations, but at least they had a guidebook.

A dozen taxis idled in a long, smoky line, the drivers scanning travellers’ faces for potential fares. "Whoa, look at that,” said Lorraine, pointing to the stream of traffic that rushed past, "they’re driving on the left side of the road!" We were young and not particularly well travelled, and we’d never been to any place like this before. We shook our heads in wonder.

"And they’re driving awfully fast too," murmured Maureen. This was also true. Taxis in particular seemed to go at an alarming speed, tearing into the terminal parking lot and only just managing to avoid collisions with other taxis.

We had looked through Lorraine and Maureen’s guidebook and after careful deliberation, decided that the Y.W.C.A. hotel would be our best bet. It was a bit more expensive than the youth hostel, but it was our first night in Hong Kong, after all, and we were willing to pay for a little extra security.

Maureen was the bravest one of us. Walking up to one of the taxis, she showed the driver her guidebook. "Y.W.C.A.?" she asked nervously. The driver studied the book for a few moments and nodded, and we all piled in.

Kowloon was a tangle of signs and billboards. Fascinated, I stared out of my window and breathed in the heady perfume of fried garlic and ginger. Cantonese and laughter vied with blaring pop music and traffic noises. I was thrilled to see that I could read the characters on a few of the signs already. I had spent the past two years studying Japanese, which uses Chinese characters, and I was delighted to find that my efforts had actually begun to pay off.

Twenty minutes later, our driver turned into in a dark, trash-filled alleyway in a worryingly seedy neighborhood. He stopped the car in front of a mess of garbage-filled crates and boxes stacked alongside a filthy, crumbling wall.

"Here lady," he said, pointing to the fare displayed on the meter. "You pay me now. Y –W- C- A."

"But this can’t be the Y.W.C.A.!" we all protested, looking around in dismay at the stained walls, the garbage piled high in overflowing cans and boxes.

He shook his head stubbornly. "Yes. Y-W-C-A. You pay now."

We protested, but our driver was insistent: "This Y.W.C.A.!"

Finally, we had no choice but to pay him. And maybe he was right – what did we know, after all? We were in a foreign country, and things were obviously different here. Perhaps the Y.W.C.A. really was just around the corner in a more salubrious looking neighborhood. Pocketing the fare and rolling his eyes at our cluelessness, our driver disappeared in a cloud of exhaust.

"Well, this is creepy," I ventured.

"Mmm, it sure is," agreed Maureen, looking in her guidebook and trying to find a street sign that gave us an indication of our whereabouts. There was a skittering noise: a large rat poked its whiskered face out from one of the boxes and we all jumped half a foot. All of us fought the urge to scream, but only Maureen won.

"What do you think we should do?" I asked, once we had all calmed down.

"Well, I’d say we ought to wait for another taxi, but we’re not going to find one in a place like this," said Lorraine, anxiously scanning the boxes. They were obviously riddled with rats: we could hear them squealing and scrabbling about.

The alley was just off a street that looked completely deserted. Washing lines stretched from one side of the alley to the other in a seemingly never-ending zig-zag: sheets, shirts, and babies’ clothes fluttered overhead in the fuggy summer breeze.

The second taxi appeared miraculously only a few minutes after we had come to the conclusion that we were nowhere near our destination. We were all profoundly relieved. How fortunate that another cab had come along when there were no other taxis in sight, especially at this hour and in such an awful neighbourhood! We all climbed in.

"Y.W.C.A.?" Lorraine said hopefully, proffering the guidebook. The driver, a gum-chomping Elvis look-alike, scowled at it briefly, then nodded. The taxi took off in a great burst of speed and we all clung to each other.

"Don’t you think it’s kind of a coincidence that he showed up so fast when there weren’t any other taxis in sight?" murmured Maureen after a few minutes. Actually, we’d all been thinking the same thing.

"It’s a coincidence all right," agreed Lorraine. "A little too much of one I’d say."

I was looking out of the window at the signs and buildings that seemed to rush past us in a multi-colored blur. I have practically no sense of direction, but it seemed to me that we were going in circles as we kept passing buildings that seemed to have exactly the same characters on the signs.

"Hey! We passed that building a few minutes ago," I said finally. I was positive that I was looking at the same sign we had passed three minutes earlier.

Lorraine and Maureen looked in the direction I was pointing, at a high-rise that looked like all the others in the middle of a concrete jungle of shining, neon-accented glass-and-steel.

"I thought we were going in circles!" cried Maureen. "But how can you tell?"

I pointed out the window. "You see that sign? The large one with the blue border and the big red bit on top? It says ‘yellow gold’ in Chinese characters, and underneath it are the characters for ‘world.’ And on that sign next to it, those big red characters mean ‘pearl.’ Anyway, we passed that building earlier. I remember both of those signs because of the characters."

"How can you read Chinese characters?’ asked Lorraine. ‘I thought you said you were studying Japanese."

"The Japanese got them from the Chinese," I explained. "Even in Japanese they call them Chinese characters."

We all stared at the back of our taxi driver’s neck.

"Excuse me!" said Lorraine, leaning forward.

He ignored her.

"Excuse me, sir!" she and Maureen chorused loudly.

He half turned around to look at us, causing us to shriek and clutch at each other, as he hadn’t modified his speed in the slightest. ‘No English,’ he said curtly, negotiating a sharp turn with a breath-taking nonchalance.

"Would you please stop going around in circles?" said Lorraine. "We don’t have all night, and it’s going to cost a fortune!"

The driver shrugged.

Lorraine sighed in exasperation and tried a different tack. "Take us directly to the Y.W.C.A.! We don’t have much money!"

"No English," the driver insisted stubbornly.

"This woman reads Chinese!" Lorraine persisted, pointing to me. "We know what you and your friend back there were up to! We’re not some dumb hicks, we’re from Minneapolis!"

No response.

Maureen began a fresh assault. "What’s your name?" She craned her neck and pretended to be reading the man’s license, then turned to me. "Mary, can you read his name?"

I cringed and tried to shrink down into my seat. I hate conflicts. Besides, I couldn’t have read the man’s name for love or money: understanding easy characters on signs is one thing, reading names is quite another.

"Elvis!" cried Maureen. "We’ll write down the characters for your name and tell them you look just like Elvis!"

The taxi driver shrugged and continued to ignore us, but the game was up: he’d definitely registered Elvis. He took us to the Y.W.C.A. without any further detours.

As it happened, we never did report Elvis or his probable accomplice. The people at the Y.W.C.A. were wonderful, and we happily toured, shopped, walked, and ate our way through Hong Kong. Nothing else remotely unpleasant happened to us, and who feels like writing a letter of complaint when they’re having that much fun?

We stuck to buses and trams for the rest of our visit, though.

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21 comments:

Christy said...

Yikes! It's a good thing that you read the Chinese characters and that Maureen had nerves of steel. Otherwise, you might still be circling in a taxi.

Kim Ayres said...

All of us fought the urge to scream, but only Maureen won

That is a superb line :) (I like the rest of the piece too)

Carole said...

Sounds like a great adventure. It is nice that you were in threes instead of ones. Much scarier alone when you end up dumped at the wrong place.

Eryl Shields said...

You make me want to go and have my own adventures.

Mary Witzl said...

Christy -- My Japanese came in handy when I was working as a waitress in New York, but reading those characters in Hong Kong I suddenly saw how useful my studies had been. But you're right: I have no sense of direction and we were all tired and disoriented, so I probably saved us a tidy sum.

Kim -- Thank you. I'm not really all that afraid of rats, but sudden sounds get to me every time. I screamed a lot louder a week later when I found a cockroach on the business end of my toothbrush in Taipei.

Carole -- I was daft enough to start out on my own and imagine that once I got to Hong Kong I would easily find my way around. I marvel at my own idiocy, but I did manage to have adventures traveling on my own.

Eryl -- I wrote this last year (for a travel writing competition which I did not place in). Writing it made me want to go back to Hong Kong. I have never had better Chinese food in all my life, and I've lived in San Francisco and been to Vancouver and everything...

debra said...

what a adventure!! #1 daughter described a similar one when she arrived in Buenos Aires(before she knew Spanish). She did arrive at her destination safely,though, albeit expensively. And her change was counterfeit money, too.

-eve- said...

That was a bad experience with the taxis. They're like that the world over, though, and no one seems to be able to regulate them.... I'm always afraid to take a taxi from a public place (as opposed to those with set rates, like airport taxis)

Natalie said...

I've also stayed at the Kowloon YWCA (quite swanky for a YWCA, isn't it?), and I've lived in Japan...are you sure I wasn't in the taxi with you?? ;-) I'm loving your blog, by the way. :-)

Mary Witzl said...

Debra -- Your daughter sounds like me before I got language! I traveled through Mexico and Guatemala on a pittance of Spanish, and shiver to think of some of the close calls I had. But expensive adventures like your daughter's leave you with a wealth of interesting experiences.

Eve -- Yes, taxi drivers are a special breed: heads up if you ever go to New York or Mexico City! My daughter works for a lovely couple from Hong Kong who are now UK citizens. I told them this story and they said the same thing happened to their son when he visited. But I have gotten more mileage out of this story than Hong Kong Elvis got, so he and I are square.

Natalie -- Thank you for coming to visit my blog! Where did you live in Japan? I have wondered what happened to Maureen and Lorraine, (whose names were something else entirely) and I've always wished we had managed to stay in touch. I do remember the Kowloon YWCA being very nice; we treated ourselves to one night there, then moved on to the Chungking Mansions.

Kappa no He said...

I really love Hong Kong, but the scary parts are soooo scary. You guys were so brave! I studied Mandarin for three years before I went--did me little good with all that Cantonese. Humph. Characters rock!

Funny how "Elvis" became the word that registered with him.

Carolie said...

Wonderful story!! I do so love your writing, and savour your posts more than once when I can steal a mmoment or two.

I'm still here, reading on the sly when I can steal a moment. Dad and lovely stepmom have been here almost two weeks, one week to go, husband arrived home from deployment two days after parents landed in Japan...eeek! I'm not ignoring you, just overwhelmed!

ChristineEldin said...

Wow, that's a very scary story!
A lot of bad things could have happened, but thankfully they didn't.

I love the way you tell this story. Suspenseful and full of vivid imagery!

Susan Sandmore said...

I'd love to go to Hong Kong, but this story has convinced me--I'd need to take along an experienced friend! (I also loved the scream line, BTW!)

Mary Witzl said...

Kappa -- Ooh, I'm envious: I wish I'd taken Mandarin! I wanted to take Mandarin or Cantonese, but ended up taking Japanese because it fit my schedule Both the Mandarin and Cantonese classes were packed, too. You are so right: characters are wonderful and although it drives me wild that it takes so long to learn them, I love everything about them.

Carolie -- Thank you. I keep checking your blog to see if I can savor one of YOUR posts (smile!)

Poor you: Showing parents around Japan demands nerves of steel. I've done it, and it was a real test of my endurance -- and no doubt a test of theirs as well. I told my father -- 6' 4" and clumsy beyond belief -- to make sure and wear shoes without laces. He forgot. I think I spent a good three hours of their visit just waiting for him to tie and untie his shoes. Gambatte!

Chris -- Thank you, too! Other than that first bad experience, we had a great time in Hong Kong. We ate in a place where the food was so plentiful and excellent we hardly dared ask for the bill; when we got it, it was one-third what we expected it would be. When I left Hong Kong, I knew I'd come out ahead.

Susan -- I feel like I've done Hong Kong a bad turn here just because of Elvis and his friend. In fact, it was a fantastic place to visit, and even though an experienced friend would have made it a lot easier to get around, it would have taken away much of the adventure. But you really should go -- it is great!

The Anti-Wife said...

Amazing how much English they can "remember" when they want to. Wonderful story!

Kanani said...

Oh, lord! What an adventure! I'm glad you found the YWCA, though I'd have probably shouted out an address!

Anyway, someday I'll tell you about the time the putt-putt broke down and all I wanted was a coffee.

Ello said...

Sigh, isn't it terrible that there is always people willing to take advantage of others? But awesome story!

Mary Witzl said...

Anti-wife -- I've conveniently forgotten a language myself, to be honest. Sometimes it's the only way to go, and one of the joys of being bilingual. Elvis was clearly a bright fellow.

Kanani -- Now you HAVE to tell the story! What stopped you from telling it right here? I know, I know: time constraints. But you owe me this story. I've never ridden in a putt-putt.

Ello -- Yes, this is a shame, but when I think about it, it seems pretty inevitable. Here we were, three well-fed, naive young tourists with the wherewithal for international travel; Elvis and his friend were skinny and nowhere near as well-nourished, and stuck with the job of ferrying us around. They may well have been supporting others on their slim wages and we obviously weren't going to be big tippers. We were ripe for the plucking, I'd say, and good for them. Of course, I'm just trying to justify their behavior. Wish they'd picked some fat-cat oil executives instead, but I'm betting they put our money to good use.

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